How to Teach Children to Solve Puzzles (Age 4-5)
Co-authored with Ritvvij Parrikh.
March 2020. When the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic began, schools closed their doors, and we suddenly found ourselves as full-time caretakers. Living in Delhi, far from our usual support network in Mumbai, we faced new challenges.
Before the pandemic, our daughter Sabi spent her weekdays at a daycare that provided not just supervision but intellectual and physical stimulation. With professional teachers and structured schedules, it was a comprehensive learning environment. Now, that responsibility was on us.
We tried our best to engage her—gardening, doodling, stargazing, coloring, and even some amateur ornithology.
While these activities were enjoyable, they had their limitations.
They weren’t enough for Sabi’s intellectual development, and as working professionals, we couldn’t be with her all the time. We recognized the need to teach her to enjoy her own company while also intellectually stimulating her.
We decided to focus on key areas: doodling, reading, writing, karate, and puzzle-solving. This blog post will discuss the last of these—why and how to teach children to solve puzzles.
Why Solve Puzzles
Building on her understanding of visual communication, solving puzzles could teach her important life skills:
- Seeing Projects Through: Solving a puzzle can take a days or even weeks! Puzzles teach kids to stick with a project till it’s complete.
- Problem-Solving: A puzzle isn’t one big problem; it’s a series of small challenges. Just like in business, breaking it down into manageable bits makes it easier to tackle. Tackle the corners, then the edges, then fill in the middle—whatever your strategy, you’re chipping away at it.
- Focus: Each session of puzzle-solving requires sustaining cognitive focus. This isn’t easy for children who have the attention span of gold fish.
- Grit and Emotional Intelligence: Let’s be honest; puzzles can be frustrating as hell. But that’s the game. In those moments of being stuck, you’re building not just patience but also emotional intelligence. You learn to navigate the highs and lows, which is a skill you’ll use your whole life.
- Delayed Gratification: So much of our culture pushes us towards doing what’s instant, guaranteed and looks glamorous in the moment. Solving puzzles can inculcate children to think long term and to keep prioritizing what matters the most, doing small things over time, even when they seem pointless, boring or hard.
How it Panned Out
Within a week, she advanced to 250-piece puzzles. The challenge was not just the number of pieces but the complexity of designs and colors.
- Attempt 1: She completed 30% in 2 days. The rest we had to guide her.
- Attempt 2: She completed 80% in 3 days. The rest we had to guide her.
- Attempt 3: Lost patience, paused for a day.
- Finally, on day 3, she completed 100% of the puzzle by herself. More importantly, she sat through the puzzle for the entire day.
After completing her last puzzle, Sabi lost interest for a while. We respected her space and let her take a break. A few months later, she rekindled her interest and tackled her first 500-piece puzzle.
She moved on to another 500-piece puzzle. We chose not to escalate to more complex puzzles because the next available option was a 1000-piece set—a significant leap in difficulty.
A few more months passed, and we revisited the 500-piece puzzles, solidifying her skills.
Ten months into our puzzle-solving journey, we felt prepared to attempt our first 1000-piece puzzle. It proved to be a 10-day marathon that required a delicate balance on our part: giving her the freedom to explore while offering consistent encouragement and guidance. Despite some complexities, such as confusing water patterns, she persevered.
Satisfied with the 1000-piece challenges, we decided to stick with them for a while, as the next tier—2000-piece puzzles—seemed a bit daunting.
As time passed, we stumbled upon a gem—a puzzle that beautifully depicted Indic culture, cityscapes, and symbols. It was a refreshing change from the generic Snow Whites and London Bridges we’d been working on. We were thrilled to assemble a representation of Varanasi. Special thanks to @webbytoys for this unique piece!
We finally conquered a 2000-piece puzzle! Sabi began working on it in mid-November, and it took her an impressive month and a half to complete.
Memorializing the Feat
The 2000-piece puzzle now serves as a centerpiece in our living room, and a 1000-piece Varanasi-themed puzzle decorates our dining room. To remind her of her efforts, we’ve also included photos of her in the process within the frame.
How To Solve Puzzles
Introducing the art of puzzle-solving to 4-year-olds can present its own set of challenges. However, we’ve identified several strategies that proved effective in our journey with Sabi:
- Collective decision-making: From the initial planning and purchasing phases, we actively involved Sabi to pique her interest. She chose puzzles that appealed to her based on their color schemes and themes.
- Designating a suitable space: Recognizing that puzzle-solving is a long-term engagement, we allocated a specific area in our home where an unfinished puzzle could remain undisturbed for days or even weeks. Importantly, this designated space was separate from her free-play area, as solving puzzles is a cognitively demanding task that requires focused attention.
- Starting simple: We began with a manageable 25-piece puzzle and gradually increased the complexity, moving on to puzzles with 100, 250, 500, 1000, and eventually, 2000 pieces.
- Phased escalation of complexity: Within each category—whether it be 100, 500, or 1000 pieces—we initially opted for puzzles with high-contrast designs to help Sabi more easily differentiate between pieces. As she became more adept, we introduced puzzles with subtler shading and intricate patterns.
- If you start it, you’ve to show up everyday: We were well aware that Sabi’s interest might ebb and flow. Rather than pushing her, we encouraged consistent but not necessarily constant involvement. If she started a puzzle, the expectation was for her to make some progress daily, even if it was only a few minutes of effort.
- Freedom to take breaks: After completing a puzzle, Sabi was free to take breaks from the activity for an extended period. This downtime allowed her to recharge and return to the task with renewed enthusiasm.
- Guided solving: While working on puzzles, we abstained from solving them for her. Instead, our approach involved continual questioning and conversation, fostering an interactive learning environment.
By following these steps, we found a way to intellectually engage Sabi during the pandemic, providing her with important life skills while having fun in the process.